You Want Our Native Identity? Take It

Terese Mailhot

Debating Native identity is a no-win for indigenous peoples as it rarely leads to harmony.

There’s turmoil within the Native American literary community over who is playing Indian and who’s really Indian. The arguments mostly display our posturing, and seldom bring people closer together. When we debate who is Indian and who isn’t, we seem to be the only ones who lose.

With Joseph Boyden, I saw some of the most intellectually profound and prolific writers weigh in and discuss the topic of his Native identity ad nauseam, and yet he’s still alive and well, on panels, receiving his residuals and honorariums. Taking him out of the circle didn’t create more space for indigenous authorship. Some white publishers, institutions, and government officials still prefer an ambiguous, safer-looking Indian to a “real” one.

The one decent thing to come out of our discourse was that people were willing to talk about sovereignty and nationhood.

What does it mean to be Indian anyway? I’m not sure. My current favorite authors aren’t enrolled. If there was a set criteria of Native identity, I’m not sure I’d pass the test. It would be hard to prove my identity, mostly because I’m too lazy to find documentation or evidence to ease a complete stranger’s peace of mind. I don’t move for anybody unless they’re paying me, or they’re my people.

The writers I work with and share stories with are community based. They created spaces for other women/writers to thrive. They’re genuinely concerned about my well being, offer to help me often, and have made my work brighter and better. So it was genuinely disheartening to hear about another scandal—another whispered accusation of fraud among us.

The problem, for me, is not that people come into our communities to take something away, or trouble the space by asserting their narratives belong to our continuum—it’s that it’s too easy to do.

In the mess of sovereignty, cultural affinity, pan-Indianism, new-ageism, essentialism, sexism, and phobia, Native identity is transfixed. And the people talking about it have motives, personal background, and they’re rarely self-effacing.

Also, nobody wants to fight, but everybody has something vicious to say. That’s just not how I was raised. My mother said, go for the jugular, but it seems like a lot of the people talking don’t see how their opinion is their word, which is their name, which means if they’re speaking sideways, or being hypocritical, maybe they deserve exposure, too.

The people who called me a Nazi for discussing Boyden were the same people telling racist jokes at reunions. They supported Boyden but rarely did anything for their own family. So, I’m a little disillusioned by all the big names and their opinions about who is and who isn’t Native, when I frankly don’t think any of us have a rhetorical pot to piss in. We’re all fallible and these conversations typically turn into essentialist banter, full of egos and not a lot of thought. We are not without fault, and having these conversations publicly only helps white people categorize us in more finite terms, and the more we do it the quicker we disappear.

Ultimately, I think authenticity is nonexistent. I believe the self is formed and cultivated. My culture is not necessarily about my nation, but how my mother interpreted her teachings, and how she filtered it down to me. We convolute ourselves in a beautiful way, and I transformed myself away from the rigidity of my environment.

Is Native identity something you can steal? Yes, if you’re stealing our stories, issues, accounts, experiences, or artwork, then you deserve a verbal crucifixion for posterity.

If you’re saying that indigenous people are more prone to alcoholism genetically, then attaching your false Native identity to the claim, it’s troublesome. Because my father was an alcoholic and the stigma of being a Native woman with a drunken father follows me. On an institutional level, the bias I received when I needed professional help or support was excruciating. The way I was categorized and spoke to was disgraceful.

But can you steal ‘Indian’ identity? I think you can. We have loosely defined the abstract ‘Indian,’ or ‘Native,’ or, ‘Aboriginal,’ in ways that have made the words easy to appropriate and play out for the public. The things they’re stealing seem like a parody of Indian over the realities we experience.

Also, they should know being a Native writer, for the most part, sucks. Our jokes might be worth it all, but the more success I have the less I enjoy it. I announced that Sherman Alexie offered to write the foreword to my book, and one of my best friends publicly shamed me for not having a woman write it. These are the types of things we deal with. Not to mention women I went out of my way to feature—women I dedicated hours editing for, they were on board with the public criticisms against me. It’s enough to throw the baby out with the bathwater. This is the type of ugliness Native authors deal with. Nothing is ever good enough. Our work is politicized; our identities are scrutinized, and, if we contest bad writing, we’re told it’s lateral violence.

For me, being Indian is about how you take it, and what you give back to the world. Go for the jugular, my mom said. She also said to do good. That’s my measure and I can say Boyden didn’t hold up, but even I fail the test some days.

Maybe if these people want to be Indian, we should let them be just that. They could relieve us at conferences by answering the racist questions white people ask. They could explain to white people why talking about spirit animals is offensive. They could do every odd job Native writers are forced to undertake. It’s exhausting, and maybe someday, if they have to deal with people stealing the identities they’ve stolen from us, they’ll finally understand.

Terese Marie Mailhot is from Seabird Island. Her work has been featured in Carve Magazine and Yellow Medicine Review. She is Saturday Editor at The Rumpus and she’s a proud IAIA graduate.